In the Spiritual Birthplace of Buca di Beppo

Boston is the birthplace of a lot of things. Benjamin Franklin, for example. Cream pie and the American revolution.

As I discovered recently staying at a sweet Airbnb next door to the 17th-century Copp’s Burying Ground in the city’s historic North End, it is also birthplace — or at least the contemporary ground zero — to a certain style of Italian/American dining best exemplified by the chain restaurant, Buca di Beppo.

Waiting for our table in the North End

Buca di Beppo, it turns out from 45 seconds of web research, was actually born in the basement of a Minneapolis building. But it is less the actual brand I refer to than a uniquely American approach to Italian dining. Witness La Famiglia Giorgio’s, a three decade-old institution noted by Boston magazine for its “giant portion sizes” and specialties such as “eggplant parmigiana and steak pizzaoila.” Or the similar Giacomo’s, located nearby, and known for “piles of butter-saturated garlic bread and heaping portions of chicken Parm and marsala”.

In other words, not exactly authentic, regional Italian cuisine.

The lines for each at dinner time, however, snaked out the front door and down the street. Our first night in town, we put our name in and got a buzzer for Antico Forno, another similar restaurant noted for it’s brick oven, where the line was wait was slightly shorter, and set out to explore the neighborhood.

Immy and her fettucini at Antico Forno

The North End, if you’ve not been, is indeed impressive for its charm and history. You turn a cobblestone corner, and here is Paul Revere’s house, there is the Old North Church of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame. Amidst the narrow streets and red brick houses you can imagine yourself be rallied from bed to confront redcoats marching in formation toward you. The ghosts of John Hancock and Samuel Adams feel very alive here.

It seems everyone in the North End — during summer, tourists mostly — queue up whenever they see a line, possibly not even knowing what they are lining up for. One of the largest lines I saw spilled out of Mike’s, a bakery known for its cannoli. I can’t imagine any cannoli being good enough to wait in that sort of line.

Back at Antico Forno, we finally got seated after a wait of double what they told us. The menu featured all the fettuccine alfredos, veal piccattas and ravioli marinaras I expected to see. I ordered the most interesting thing I could find, which was an artichoke and porcini pizza. The food was all good and filling.

“If you had a restaurant like this in Los Angeles,” I said to my wife, “no one would come.”

In fact, we have a restaurant like this in our little country hamlet of Topanga called Rocco’s, where nobody goes unless they are desperate.

The next morning, heading out in search of half and half for my wife’s coffee, my daughter Immy and I passed a restaurant called Regina Pizzeria, where though not yet open, there was already a line. I did my google research and discovered that Regina was the self-declared “Oldest Pizzeria in Boston,” having opened its doors in 1926 (and in the intervening near-century having spun of several other locations). Several local sources also identified it as the best pizza in Boston.

Crossing back over the Charles River after a visit to the Bunker Hill Memorial, we were hungry and struck out for a Belgian frites joint called Saus that we’d discovered on our previous trip to Boston. But we got lost in the labyrinthine streets of the North End, turned a corner, and there was Regina Pizzeria and its line. There were fewer people than we’d seen earlier — now perhaps only seven or eight parties deep — so we queued up.

At Regina Pizzeria

It took about 30 minutes and we were seated in a hard wood booth, plastic menus and jars of crushed red pepper and grated parmesan on the table, frame black-and-white photos of the white-haired owner and various apparently notable clients adorning the walls. The waitress, a raven-haired Italian American girl with a nearly indecipherable Bostonian accent that seemed straight out of central casting, promised to be with us in a minute.

At Regina, all they serve is pizza, soda and beer. We ordered some of each. Our artichoke and olive pie (with a few anchovies for Dad) arrived, beautifully blackened at the bubbled crust, with a pitcher of Peroni. The pizza was stunning — the crust thin yet chewy, yeastily fragrant — all the better followed by a deep draw on a cold Peroni.

Artichoke and olive pie (with anchovies)

Our waitress, intrigued by the fact that we were from Los Angeles, explained that she left Boston once and tried living in Miami, but people outside Boston didn’t understand her. So she came home. I wasn’t sure if she meant that people outside Boston didn’t get her personality, or actually literally could not understand what she was saying. I left her a good tip.

By our third day in the North End, we had warmed to the Italian/American culinary aesthetic. We tucked into a dated restaurant called L’Osteria, where everyone seemed to know the septuagenarian Italian hostess, and our waiter was named Luigi. I thought I couldn’t get out of this time capsule without trying linguini and clam sauce, while the others ordered carbonara and spaghetti and meatballs. The linguini was pretty much what I expected — but well cooked, and satisfying. And there was a lot of it.

L’Osteria

Carbonara

Digging into the leftovers the next day on the Alaska Airlines flight home, the food reminded me of the intimacy of the North End, the friendliness of the Italian Americans we had met, and was comforting. Maybe that was what the Italian American dining experience was all about — less pushing culinary boundaries than making you feel that you belong.

And that ain’t a bad thing.

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